This story is set in a time when hunting was the profession of choice. Everybody who could would send their sons and daughters to go and apprentice with the hunters, who were admired for the bravery they showed when they disappeared into the forest. Few hunters made it back from the forest alive, but when they did, they came back with wealth, both material and in the form of stories.
The forest was a great equaliser; it did not care whether the hunter was the son of a king or the daughter of a farmer. Its creatures attacked at will and it was only the most skilled that survived to enjoy its riches. From a young age, children learned how to use the juju of the hunt and how to protect themselves when faced with creatures that were not human.
Hunting wasn’t simply venturing into the bush to find food; it was to return with tales of bravery and unimaginable riches.
The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter had apprenticed for two decades. He had traded stories of his battles for the admiration of his village time and time again, and so now he had grown sick of it all.
They say that when a hunter is ready to retire, he finds a wife.
The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter had found his. After two months in the Impenetrable Forest, he had emerged scarred in too many ways to count. Stained red from the top of his now out-grown Afro to the bottom of his feet with the blood of slain imps and goblins, the Hunter decided that he no longer wanted to be a hunter. It was time to put an end to it all. Now, he had found a wife that he will take back home. Then, he would find another profession, maybe palm-wine tapping.
This was also the time when all girls born into noble families of repute were called Yọyin. When times were not marked by the year, they were marked by events or by whatever name was the most popular. Yọyin could have been a woman who lived true to her name and brought sweetness wherever she went, or she could have been an enterprising businesswoman who made the sweetest wine. We cannot say for sure, but we can assume that the wife the retired hunter had found was also called Yọyin. We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter had emerged from the forest into a market of monsters.
Yọyin sat amongst six other women, selling her wares at the market.
Although in those days, young girls would go to the market with their friends to sell akara, we can’t really say what sort of wares this Yoyin was selling.
We can, however, say much about her appearance.
Let’s start at her hair. Her hair was long, braided and packed in a tall crest atop her head. It was styled in a manner which drew one’s eyes down the arch of her crown and to her neck and further down her spine till the cloth she tied across her chest put an abrupt stop to one’s voyeuristic view.
Her skin was as dark as rare, Ebony fruit. If you know your fruit, you know the fruit from the Ebony Tree is as lovely to look at as it is luscious. While the fruit bruises easily, this Yoyin looked sturdy. If we’re to talk about her figure, we have to talk about her hips. Poems could be recited on how they were wide and accommodating, how her behind curved in a way that spoke of dancing, in the market square and deep into the night beneath the stars.
This was how beautiful this Yọyin was, and of course, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter was entrapped. They say that there are seven steps to love. Our man, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter, he didn’t start at the first step.
He had jumped all the way to step six. Obsession.
He didn’t want this woman for one night, or to even glance his way with a smile. From the first time he saw her, he already had a plan of action.
With no time to waste, he snuck into the nearest compound, where he hid in the bushes waiting for the perfect time to steal from a water pot, in order to wash himself. There was no time to search for a razor with which to shave or a tailor to provide reams of cloth. Markets only happened so often —every three, five or seven days— and there was no guarantee that his wife would still be there when he returned.
When the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter approached Yọyin, he approached her as a hunter would. Chest out, walking tall, oozing confidence from every pore.
Before he left his town upon his first venture into the bush, he had been widely praised as attractive. Of course, each battle and fight had chipped away at his beauty, but it did not leave him ugly. That may have been why the gorgeous Yọyin looked his way. Well, from her first glance at him, she didn’t seem interested in what he had to offer. Yet, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter talked and coaxed and poured sweet words into her ears right there in the marketplace.
Yọyin was the woman who kept him warm through nights spent sleeping upon branches of trees in the forest. He had known her even before he’d met her.
Finally, as the sun neared home from the night, the retired hunter’s words seemed to be working, and Yọyin finally agreed to his proposal.
“I will marry you.” She said. “But you will live with me and my sisters.”
With her honey voice, Yọyin could have convinced him of anything.
In those days, elders often said that the world was originally a forest, overrun by the many creatures of the spirit world. It was after humans descended to earth from the sky that bits of the forest were beaten back by civilisation. Still, the forest surrounded everything, separating houses, compounds and villages.
After the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter had won Yoyin’s heart, they walked through the edge of the forest to her family home. As the bush cleared to reveal a circle of rectangular huts with thatched roofs, the first thing the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter heard was commotion.
It was night and under the light of the lamp-posts, he saw two women locked in fierce battle. One held onto the other’s hair while the other beat back with her hands. A crowd of women stood watching.
“Give me back my hands!”
Those were the words the retired hunter had thought he’d heard, but Yọyin led him past the crowd, unaffected.
“Should we not stop them?” The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter asked.
“My sisters fight over everything,” she replied.
They walked past huts for sleeping, an outdoor kitchen, and a bathing area marked by the woven mats that covered it on four sides before reaching the hut that was Yọyin’s.
This is where they would live and this was where Yọyin would reveal herself, eventually. Before that, however, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter could say that he enjoyed his wife. He spent his mornings tapping palm-wine as he had planned and selling it in the market. At night, he learned the intricacies of Yọyin’s dances and studied every bit of her body as the learned man studies his juju.
So, naturally, he knew when her body changed.
A lesser entranced man would not have noticed that his wife’s neck seemed shorter than it was before.
The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter knew his wife’s neck could fit snugly in the cup of his palm.
Next thing, he could feel the tight coils of her hair resting against his thumb and forefinger. Then, when he thought of it, her hair wasn’t the same once she’d loosened her crested hair-do.
One day, she left for market and returned with her head almost bald, with scraggly patches of kinky hair. The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter did not mind this, initially, because her face was still there and her face was still beautiful.
Months after his marriage, he was home, seated in the inner courtyard, when a strange voice called out in greeting.
Yọyin ran out to welcome her guest and The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter paid no attention as both of them disappeared into a private room.
“Sister, I am here to collect my breasts.”
The words sailed from the room and hit him in the face. Curiosity got the better of him, and the retired hunter crept toward the room where his wife sat with her guest.
The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter watched in horror as, in the dark interior of the room, Yọyin plucked first her right breast, then her left breast from her chest and handed it over to the woman that came demanding.
When he shouted out in astonishment, the look she shot his way was scathing.
They fought afterwards, but Yọyin offered no explanation.
The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter moved between anger and confusion, and failed to come up with any questions. What he had witnessed was impossible, but she was his wife.
Even if Yọyin was breastless and hairless, her face remained the same.
Then, it became a pattern.
Each month came a visitor and with each visitor, Yọyin lost a part of her body.
By the time she was worn down to just a head on the floor, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter had lost all sense of composure.
He had to be honest with himself, he had married a daemon.
This was what they called real entrapment, his life as a hunter would not let him go.
When Yọyin was without limbs, it was his duty to go and fetch water from the stream and it was his duty to prepare dinner for her and sometimes for her sisters, whose bodies also changed with the seasons.
When he went to the stream to fetch water, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter could feel Yọyin’s eyes burning into his back. Sometimes, he would look up and think he’d seen her face, her head hanging low from a tree like fruit, still as beautiful as the first day he had met her.
Whatever juju he carried was not strong enough to guarantee an escape, or so the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter thought.
One day, another voice came calling, and this time when the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter went to check, he saw a headless body. Tall and smooth. The body felt it’s way along the wall toward Yọyin’s room and this time, Yọyin called for her husband.
The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter stood aside as the headless body lifted his wife’s head from the floor and plucked both eyes from Yọyin’s head.
“Thanks for keeping my head safe for me, sister,” The stranger said as she left.
“My husband,” called Yoyin, “put my eyes into the wall just above the entrance. I want to see everything.”
This was the hunter’s chance to flee.
There was nothing left of the woman he had married, outside her eyes and her honeyed, disembodied voice. At night when he tried to sleep, her voice reverberated through the house.
“What are you scared of?”
“I knew what you wanted from me from the first day you laid your eyes on me.”
“I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”
But the hunter waited for his chance, and soon it came. One of her sisters came and plucked her eyes from the mud wall.
“I am going to get another body that you will like,” were Yọyin’s parting words, but the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter knew he wouldn’t be around to see it.
He ventured out the back. Leaving the way he came was impossible, as her many sisters lived out front.
The Man Who Used to Be a Hunter returned once more to the forest, this time, tracing his way home.
When he reached his homestead, he remembered why his first venture into the forest was not his last. He would say it himself, his family was composed of vile vultures.
With each expedition into the forest, they would attack his riches like hyenas upon carrion. When his siblings nagged and his father complained that his palm-wine calabash was empty, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter grumbled. They were greedy, always fighting over something. They were brothers who would kill their own brothers for a mat full of cowrie shells. They were sisters who would poison their nieces and nephews.
Yet, the hunter was not ready to face his wife, and so made a bed among the vultures. In his hometown, he spent his days lying on his mud bed in his darkened room. Sometimes, he would attend the meetings that were required of him as a renowned hunter, or sit in the wide courtyard of the palace while the chief celebrated his achievements.
They say that when a hunter is ready to retire, he finds a wife.
This hunter, however, was going to retire without one.
Still, society loathed people who remained alone. So willing was the hunter to avoid taking a wife, that he looked to other bachelors seeking to leave their homesteads. That didn’t work. He needed a new homestead, and tradition dictated that he needed a wife to achieve that. But the hunter did not want a wife and he insisted as much. Even as his family pressured.
“It is not right that you are unmarried at your age.”
Years passed and the hunter knew that he had held it off long enough.
He looked at his fellow hunters, who fell into two categories.
There were those who would die happily in the thickness of the forest and there were those who had retired. The latter were growing fat, surrounded by their children.
They looked happy enough, and Yoyin hadn’t come looking for him, so the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter decided to give marriage a second chance.
“I will marry but I do not care to see any woman’s face. I don’t care that she is beautiful. Just get me a woman who will take care of me and who will perform her duties.”
He knew his village from back to front and inside out. Anybody unnaturally beautiful aroused his suspicion. This time around, he would be less superficial.
His family agreed and asked the town matchmaker to find him the plainest girl possible, and true to their word, they found a woman that would have been undesirable to most men of that era, for she was blind.
On his wedding day, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter allowed his family to make a fuss.
He couldn’t be more overjoyed when he was first introduced to his wife and saw that they had married him to a blind woman with skin as silky as palm oil. With her eyelids glued shut, her hands reached out to hold him.
In that instant, the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter’s skin grew cold, as Yọyin’s voice whispered in his ear.
“I am so happy to be reunited with you, husband. I missed you so much, my hunter.”
A Note on Those Who Are Not Born and Cannot Die
For those who were not born and cannot die, the only thing that could be likened to birth is becoming aware of the world around them. As originally, they have no body, no flesh and no skin to encase their essence. You could say that’s what makes them so fascinated by form. Existing without form made one an expert trader, it was always trade by barter. An arm for a leg. Eyes for a perfectly rounded pair of buttocks.
The woman, or monster, you know as Yọyin was not even in her house when the Man Who Used to Be a Hunter leapt over it. Another important fact is for those who are not born and cannot die, the world is filled with a complex set of rules that no human can hope to understand. Take for instance this one;
If a brave hunter is to step over your house on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, he will be your husband.
This was during his battle with the giant bird with a beak like a sword. Yọyin was bartering with the woman who would trade her human body for the antelope one she currently occupied.
In the case of Yọyin, after she became aware, she spent centuries learning emotion, one at a time. Fear, love, envy, hate, there was so much to learn. Without form, that was the only way creatures knew how to pass away the time, because getting the first thing to trade with was notoriously difficult. Balance kept it that way, so that not every one of those who are not born and cannot die could walk, swim, slither or fly across the earth.
Balance also ensured that no creature could have extra limbs. The law of the land adhered to this balance, and the mixing of body parts was expressly forbidden. Of course, these beings still did what they wanted to and that is why you find half-woman-half horse, half-leopard-half-bird, quarter-snake-quarter-rat-half-fish and other such monstrosities deep within the folds of any forest.
Still formless, Yọyin didn’t have to call to the man who rushed by, he who was like her. The man tossed what extra he had upon the earth and Yọyin had found a new home. It was the perfect castaway, a skeleton. With each bone she could craft the perfect figurine and she had had enough time to know what she wanted to be first.
Again, we have veered off course. The hunter leapt over Yoyin’s home and even as Yọyin desperately pleaded to be rid of her antelope form, Balance snatched her away and took her back to her house.
“That is your husband,” Balance declared.
But, how could he have leapt over her house when it hung mid-air? Those who are not born and so cannot die do not have any ordinary homes after all.
Yọyin’s answer was clear, right in front of her eyes, as she saw the hunter climb trees and leap from branches locked in battle with a creature that flew, one of her kind that had been banished for becoming too greedy.
As she watched, Yọyin noted that her husband was almost perfect in form. As perfect as any human could be. No human had access to the Weavers who were so excellent at their work that no skin they wove bore any marks. When the Weavers wove feathers, the colours could be as brilliant as freshly dyed cloth or as dull as muddy soil.
Humans had little knowledge of the perfection in imperfection and disproportionate, asymmetrical forms. So in the grander scheme of things, her husband was fine-looking. She especially liked the way his muscles gathered beneath the skin that covered his legs.
“A gift to congratulate you,” Balance interrupted her observation and gave her a pair of eyes, at once whiter than white and darker than black.
Yọyin accepted the gift, but her regard never left her husband, who had now defeated the creature he’d been fighting. It was not a bad match. She would shape herself to be whatever he desired. Not just that, she would be a better form of whatever he had imagined in his head to be beautiful.
So, she started building. It was a painstakingly long process but time means nothing to those who are not born and cannot die. Those eyes that were gifted to Yọyin went through four bodies as she exchanged, bartered and bought her way to the perfect form. When her eyes were returned to her, all that was left was to visit the Weavers for the perfect skin. Whatever form he desired, she would take and time would be of no consequence. He was human and he would die but when he died, she would capture his essence and shape him into a form that she desired.
They would live together, with and without form…
And this is what we call a happy ending.
By Rafeeat Aliyu. This story originally appeared on Expound Magazine.
Rafeeat Aliyu is a writer, editor and documentary filmmaker. She loves food, learning about pre-colonial African history and watching horror movies. Her weird and speculative fiction has appeared in Omenana, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, FIYAH, the AfroSF Anthology of Science Fiction by African Writers and more. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Workshop (2018).
Cover illustration, titled Devil in the Garden is the work of Salim Busuru for Avandu Vosi.